Urban and suburban students embrace raising livestock for 4-H, FFA projects

Photos by Dave Liggett

Becca (left) and Rachel Berk raised their 4-H sheep at a family member’s farm 40 minutes from where they live in suburban Columbus.

Rachel Berk is experiencing both a high and a low. She and her sister, Becca, have just taken high honors in their 4-H sheep showmanship contests at the Franklin County Fair and the excitement is still rippling through them. Clutching her trophy, Rachel talks about how the hundreds of hours spent training and caring for her lambs has paid off. She then pauses and takes a breath. She’s feeling a little sad. The journey that she and her younger sister have been on for the past three months is about to end.

“I’m always sad when this is over because I really like working with the animals. I’m going to miss being with them every day,” said the 14-year-old who has shown sheep as 4-H projects for five years.

Rachel’s reaction is typical of 4-H students after they finish showing their animals and watch them be auctioned off at the end of the fair. But Rachel and Becca are not your typical 4-H students who show livestock. They don’t live in the countryside where generations of kids have grown up with 4-H and FFA. Instead they live in Upper Arlington, a landlocked Columbus suburb where an acre of property is a rarity and raising livestock animals, including chickens, is prohibited.

4-H, FFA advisers and Ohio State University Extension educators would like to see more urban and suburban students raise and show livestock. They say it makes sense because consumers are increasingly wanting to know how their food is raised, but many have never even set foot on a farm.

“Every (livestock) project involves blood, sweat and tears and an understanding of the circle of life. Raising the animals helps the kids—and their parents—have a real understanding of how much work goes into their food,” said Dave Berk, Rachel and Becca’s father. He and his wife, Wanda, grew up in 4-H and wanted their children to have the same experience even though they now live in a suburban neighborhood. Fortunately, Wanda’s brother has a farm about 40 minutes away and could house their 4-H lambs. Their market rabbits were kept in their own garage with neighborhood kids popping in to pet and learn about them.

Not everybody, though, has the luxury of a farmer relative or friend who can keep 4-H or FFA animals. Kelsi Born is one of those. She lives behind Doctor’s Hospital in Columbus but found a place about 10 minutes away that was willing to house the various 4-H animals she has shown over the years, including horses, sheep, goats, cattle and hogs. A recent graduate of South-Western Career Academy, she spent her free time this summer walking her lambs and riding her horses in preparation for competing at the county fair. The lazy days of summer that so many of her peers enjoyed simply didn’t exist for her – the animals relied on her for food, water and exercise and couldn’t go a day without.

Columbus resident Abby Whitehead with the 4-H horse she showed at the Franklin County Fair. Her horse was housed at a stable 15 miles away. She wants to turn her hobby into a career—she plans to pursue equine studies at the University of Findlay.

“This year my ewe dropped on the coldest day and while most people were tucked away in nice warm homes, I was pulling these baby lambs out and trying to keep them warm so they could nurse. This is an every day type of job,” said the 18-year-old who aspires to be an equine dentist some day.

Lisa Holden didn’t hesitate this year when asked if she could board 4-H pigs on her farm in Lebanon for a nearby family whose subdivision near Cincinnati didn’t allow livestock.

“It was a good chance for us to pay it back because somebody did that years ago for my kids,” she said. “I don’t know what we would have done without 4-H. We didn’t have the normal teenage problems because my kids were involved with 4-H. It made all the difference.”

In northeastern Ohio, educators have increased their marketing in Elyria, Lorain and other cities, looking to attract more students into 4-H, the nation’s largest youth development organization, said Lorain County Extension educator Elizabeth Share.

“We’ve been seeing a bit more interest in urban kids wanting to raise livestock, particularly backyard poultry,” she said. “It’s becoming more and more important for these kids to educate the public about the livestock industry. I’ll never forget the time someone asked what type of pigs peppered bacon comes from.”

Rachel isn’t surprised, though. On a school trip to George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, she found herself teaching a teacher about sheep.

“He looked at a sheep and said ‘That’s a boy, right? Because it has horns?’ I had to explain to him that it’s the breed of sheep that determines if it has horns,” she said.

Rachel, Becca and other students said 4-H has taught them important life skills such as public speaking, cooking, sewing and money management. Interested in promoting 4-H, Rachel reached out to her guidance counselor to ask if she could give a speech about 4-H. The speech before her entire 8th grade class was well received, inspiring her to set a goal of talking to elementary school students about 4-H, which starts in third grade.

“I’ve grown so much as a leader because of 4-H. I used to be shy and now I’m more comfortable talking with others,” Rachel said. “There aren’t a lot of people here who understand agriculture and now I feel comfortable enough to help educate them about what all agriculture does and how much hard work goes into it.”  

Kahrs -- goat
Since livestock isn’t allowed in her subdivision, Karrigan Kahrs had her 4-H goat housed at Lisa Holden’s nearby farm in Lebanon.

You want to raise what?

What should you do if your child comes home all excited about an animal he or she wants to raise as a 4-H or FFA project and it can’t stay at your house? Here are some tips on what to do:

  • Start with your 4-H or FFA adviser. Many can keep or know someone who can house animals. Ask your friends and neighbors as well as your local Extension educator.
  • Check with your youth group on what rules apply for housing an animal off your property. For example, 4-H rules state dogs must be on the exhibitor’s property but horses can be housed anywhere.
  • Let property owners know when youths will be on the property and provide an emergency contact number.
  • Make sure your animal is living in a safe and healthy environment with plenty of shade and access to water.
  • Talk to your children about respecting other people’s property and ensure the property is cleaned up at all times.


Visit ohio4h.org to join a 4-H club or contact the local Ohio State University Extension 4-H professional in your county.

Amy Graves 

Amy Graves is a communications specialist for Ohio Farm Bureau.